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Access to Libraries Continues to Grow in Tanzania

Tuesday, June 08, 2021 10:10 AM | Jennifer Wisniewski (Administrator)

Did you know that one of the world’s earliest libraries was established on the continent of Africa? It was around 323 B.C, (B.C.!) that Ptolemy built the Library of Alexandria in present-day Egypt. It may have included as many as 500,000 papyrus scrolls with works of literature, history, law, math and science. Its vast collection attracted researchers from around the Mediterranean region including Euclid and Archimedes.

Today, some of Africa’s best libraries are still located in Egypt, such as the Royal Library of Alexandria and Six October University Library. Other parts of the continent boast of their own libraries, both for their architecture and their collections. For example, the National Library of South Africa holds a collection of rare manuscripts and maps. Kenya’s Kenyatta University Post Modern Library is a five-story, high-tech facility built in 2011. And Ghana’s Balme Library contains over 100,000 books, six departments and a special library for the physically handicapped.

Libraries, at their best, should be easily accessed by all segments of the population. This has not always been the case in some countries in Africa, particularly in rural regions. Yet, an important shift is taking place. As more and more collections are becoming digitized, access to library materials is becoming more widespread.

Photo Credit:  Shunya Koide/Unsplash

Historically, many of the continent’s current libraries were established by colonial governments. Replicating European models, they were not always relevant or accessible to the general population. Often, the libraries were only used by the highly educated elite. As more of the population becomes educated, the popularity of libraries has grown. Still, some think there is untapped potential for the use of libraries to assist with social development and economic growth. 

One researcher had this to say: “The unique opportunity to reach people with vital information in areas such as agriculture, health, and employment and poverty reduction - in addition to education - is largely untapped.”

NGOs play a part in increasing this access. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the major funders of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in libraries on the African continent and throughout the world. It supports efforts to raise awareness of public libraries and to provide free internet access.

Public Libraries in Tanzania

Julius Nyerere, former president of Tanzania, played a hand in the development of Tanzania’s library system. In 1967 he opened the National Central Library in Dar es Salaam.  He called it the “hub of a wheel” that would eventually stretch out to towns and villages. Today the Tanzania Library Services Board (TSLB) operates 21 regional and 18 district libraries. Like other countries in Africa, one of its continuing challenges is touching the far reaches of the rural landscape where the majority of the population lives.

At the end of 2020, the TLSB announced some good news. The system is set to go digital. All materials within the system’s libraries will be able to be accessed digitally. In preparation, they have begun training librarians nationwide on the workings of the future e-library.

Prior to this large investment, NGOs established or advanced libraries on a smaller basis. For example, the PeerCorps Trust fund set up a digital library in the Central Tanzanian city of Nzega. Because the area has frequent power outages, they use a laptop system. And in the city of Ilembula, they founded a specialized digital medical library that serves 200 nursing students.

School Libraries in Tanzania

Research shows a strong connection between high-quality school library programs and high achievement, one of the reasons that Saving Grace School established their own library. 

Photo Credit: Saving Grace School / Brighter Tanzania Foundation

However, most primary and secondary schools in Tanzania do not have their own libraries. In 2017, only 19 percent of students in first and second grades reported that they had used a school library. Often the Office of the Head Teacher is used to store books for teacher reference only. Another NGO, Project Concern International, which worked in the Mara region of Tanzania, discovered that a perception existed that students would damage books, leaving them with no resources to replace them. Therefore, they kept any resources that they had, locked away. 

The program included increasing student access and educating communities about the benefits of libraries. They also trained teachers on how to promote reading habits. This included setting aside one day each week for students to pick out a book that they could take home with them.

Photo Credit: Saving Grace School / Brighter Tanzania Foundation

With the assistance of a Brighter Tanzania Foundation fundraising drive, we are happy to report that Saving Grace School established their own library in 2018. The staff continues to add to their collection at the beginning of each school year. Part of BTF’s mission is to help build the local economy while contributing to the education of Arusha’s underserved population. And so the teachers purchase all books for the Saving Grace library in Tanzanian stores. 

Photo Credit: Saving Grace School / Brighter Tanzania Foundation

Grace Silas Laizer, founder of Saving Grace School and its library, shares in the knowledge of an ancient truth: books transport. It might be Dr. Seuss who said it best: “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” 

Brighter Tanzania Foundation is a registered 501c3 nonprofit organization. Donations may be tax-deductible.

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